At the time that I was a bochur in yeshivah, traveling to the Rebbe was only a dream, for two reasons: Firstly, the hefty cost of the airline ticket. Traveling by ship was cheaper, but took a great deal of time. Then there was the general problem of the Ministry of Public Security making it very difficult when it came to getting a permit to leave the country. In order to get a permit, a most lengthy procedure was required that seemed as difficult as splitting the sea! Even after getting a permit, there was then the problem of obtaining a Visa from the American Consulate.
All this was until 5716. This year shluchim of the Rebbe arrived in the Holy Land, and organized a big campaign directed to aid those who wanted to travel to the Rebbe. They told of how those who merit to see the Rebbe are effected inwardly, the revelations, the light… and they stimulated everyone to come be in the “dalet amos” of the Rebbe, and not be nourished alone by the writings and information that came to them from 770.
The first to pave the pathway of traveling to the Rebbe was the chossid R. Meir Friedman from K’far Chabad. With the month of Tishrei approaching, he took big loans that submerged him in great debt, and he flew to the Rebbe.
In the year 5720, chassidim decided to lease a plane from El-Al; only chassidim would be traveling on that plane – which made their flight cheaper! In those days the plane merited to be called “The First Charter.” It actually took a great deal of effort to arrange this, and at first it seemed that they would not succeed. In those days there was a Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union, and the American Consulate was slow to giving out Visas, and this prevented a lot of chassidim from being able to travel. It was only after a great deal of pressure and persuasion from different officials on behalf of the chassidim that the consulate gave in and granted Visas to whoever wanted to travel.
I have saved my passport as a keepsake, even though I have renewed my passport many times since. For on this passport was written: “Visa for the Rebbe Schneerson of Lubavitch.” I remember the feeling we all had when we had our Visas stamped. Even the non-Jew who worked in the consulate understood that we chassidim were traveling to the USA only to visit the Rebbe, and nothing more.
I joined the Charter when I was newly married, and after my friend and mashpiah Rabbi Velvel Kesselman and I did military service, which earned us an exit permit.
It is hard to describe the inner excitement and enthusiasm when it comes to an entire aircraft of chassidim traveling to the Rebbe. It was like a dream come true. Many chassidim came to say goodbye to us at the airport, and we danced together in joy. On the one hand – eyes watered, and on the other – they were happy for us.
Chassidim really did mesirus nefesh to fly to the Rebbe. To illustrate, the cost of the flight was a thousand four hundred pounds; my monthly salary as a teacher was three hundred pounds – the cost of the flight was equal to half a year of my wages. But no one made any calculations, they thought only of the z’chus to see the Rebbe.
The flight itself was an unforgettable experience. Imagine dancing on the plane with partisan R. Zushe winning over everyone with a bottle of mashkeh in hand. In the front of the plane were influential rabbis including Rabbi Shmaryahu Sassonkin, Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, Rabbi David Hanzin, Rabbi Avraham Paris and others.
During the flight, I decided to sit by them and listen to their conversations. One of the points that I remember from listening, is words of Rabbi Sassonkin to his friends, “We never traveled to the Rebbe in this manner. We’ve traveled to the Rebbe in meandering ways and painstakingly; in a flight it’s impossible to feel the value and importance of the trip to the Rebbe.” For hours they recounted personal stories and memories. One told of the “yechiduses” they merited by the Previous Rebbe, the other on his studies in Tomchei Temimim and the third of Chassidic figures he knew. They were wonderful and fascinating conversations.
Due to high winds, the plane had to land in one of the islands in close proximity to Canada, and only on Monday morning we arrived in New York. At first we hoped we’d manage to daven Slichos with the Rebbe, but as time passed and we didn’t yet leave the terminal, we realized that we will probably not get there in time.
After getting my suitcase, I headed for the exit. I just opened the door and there was a large crowd of Chassidim who came to meet us, hugs and kisses, tears and joy all served into the mix. Among the crowd were some I had met, among them Rabbi Benzion Shemtov, and I knew even some shluchim who came to Israel on the Rebbe’s shlichus in 5716. In all the hubbub I felt someone pull me to the side; it was Rabbi Yudel Krinsky, who whispered to me, “R. Avraham – you have merited,” and he proceeded to elaborate.
He said that on the morning after Slichos, the Rebbe asked him to come to his office, there he ordered him to go to the airport, and in due course to contact the secretary’s office. He parked the car and went to call the office. Back then there were no mobile phones like today, and when he lifted the phone to call the office, he identified himself by name. Immediately came the Rebbe on the line and asked if we arrived. He said no, and the Rebbe asked him to wait on the phone, and every few minutes called to ask again. When he saw me coming out first, he told the Rebbe right away that we got out and the first one is Rabbi Avraham Meizlish. The Rebbe responded happily, “A groiser yesher koach!”
Of course, there was no limit to my excitement, that I had merited that the Rebbe heard my name and it gave him great satisfaction.
We got to 770 with our bags. Relatives of mine came to take me to their house, I had to refuse. I wanted to be the closest to “Beis Chayeinu,” and I preferred to stay with all my luggage and not rush out. Meanwhile, the clock’s hand showed nine in the morning, I put on my tallis and wrapped myself in it, and lo and behold the Rebbe came out for the Torah reading. I almost fainted at the sight of the Rebbe. I recited the brachah for when you see the Rebbe and stood fixed to the spot, looking at the Rebbe, amazed when he was called to the Torah.
I stayed at 770 until Minchah, the chazzan finished the brachah, “…Who blesses his people Israel safely,” the chazzan looked at the Rebbe and began to say Kaddish; meaning no Tachanun. Then I asked the chazzan why we skipped Tachanun, and he explained to me that this was the Rebbe’s instruction. It seemed that the arrival of guests from Israel was reason enough not to say Tachanun. After Minchah, the Gabbai announced a welcoming farbrengen to be held in honor of the guests in the upper zal. During the farbrengen it was most crowded; I stood almost in the front row close to the Rebbe, and I remember it was so crowded I had beads of sweat in my eyes and I could not even raise my hands to wipe them…. This farbrengen is engraved well in my memory.
The Rebbe opened with the reason for the farbrengen; It was the eve of Tuesday’s Selichos, when it was traditional for the Rebbeim to give over Ma’amers. We sang a “Ma’amer preperation” niggun, and the Rebbe said Ma’amer DH “Lechah amar libi es penachah Hashem avakesh.” The Rebbe cried a lot during that farbrengen. For me, it was the first time with the Rebbe. The excitement that flooded my heart was huge. No one was interested in comfort; only in the desire to see the Rebbe and follow his every movement and word.
That night I slept in a cot in the kitchen of the home of Rabbi Abraham Korf, who was newly married; I knew him as one of the shluchim who came to Israel in 5716.
All this is a nutshell description of my first day with the Rebbe.